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Religion | Religious leaders charge into the debt ceiling debate in favor of tax increases

WASHINGTON-Pastors from mainline denominations and other religious leaders knelt on the floor of the Capitol Rotunda Thursday, praying and singing until police arrested them for the protest. Their message to a Congress attempting to raise the debt ceiling? Raise taxes instead of cutting programs.

"Today, we offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to say to Congress, 'Raise revenue, protect the vulnerable and those living in poverty," said the Rev. Michael Livingston, the former president of the National Council of the Churches of Christ (USA), in a statement. Joining him were representatives from the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, and groups like Faith in Public Life.

But neither chamber is considering a bill to raise the debt ceiling that contains tax increases. The two bills on the table, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's measure and House Speaker John Boehner's measure, both rely exclusively on cuts to reduce the deficit. The only political leader in Washington still talking about tax increases was President Barack Obama in his primetime address Monday night.

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"There may be noble reasons for religious officials getting arrested, but defending big government and advocating higher taxes don't qualify," said Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religious and Democracy (IRD), in a statement. "Such a partisan stance they would denounce if advocated by religious conservatives. Members of local congregations deserve representatives in D.C. who represent their faith, not a narrow political agenda."

The pastors' civil disobedience in support of raising taxes to protect poverty programs follows similar campaigns from other religious leaders, notably including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which advocated that Congress raise revenues and cut defense spending to protect poverty programs.

"A just framework . . . requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly," the bishops wrote in a letter to Congress Tuesday.

Sojourners took out a full-page ad in Politico Thursday defending U.S. poverty programs with the banner message "God Is Watching."

"What happens to low-income people, families, and kids-at home and around the world-will be of keen interest to God, according to Scripture," the ad reads. "In the past, our country has successfully reduced deficits and poverty at the same time. There was a bipartisan agreement to defend the means-tested programs for low-income people against cuts."

The organization also bought radio time featuring the same message in Nevada, Ohio, and Kentucky-the home states of Boehner, Reid, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, respectively.

In the past weeks of the debt ceiling debate, Sojourners' CEO Jim Wallis has decried the "immorality of extending tax breaks and benefits for the wealthy, while programs that help the poor and vulnerable meet their most basic needs are being cut." Wallis and 11 other religious leaders met with President Obama at the White House for 40 minutes on July 20 and advocated that "the most vulnerable need a special exemption from all spending cuts," Wallis recounted. "We told President Obama that this is what God requires of all of us."

The group that met with President Obama described itself as a "circle of protection for the poor." But IRD's Tooley said the religious leaders had "formed a circle of protection around the Obama administration."

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD Magazine from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.


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